Not Knowing Cursive Is Neither Sad Nor Embarrassing For Rachel Jeantel

I generally champion the preservation of cursive but it should never be a weapon used to dismiss people.
Publish date:
July 2, 2013
writing, cursive, handwriting

As I watched the coverage of the George Zimmerman trial and the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, I realized -- it isn't that cursive is truly dead. It's just that it's being exercised as a status marker in the grand old (gross) tradition of penmanship.

When Rachel Jeantel testified that she couldn't read cursive, that she'd had a friend write the letter she wrote to Trayvon Martin's mother, it made perfect sense to me. That was an important letter. She wanted it to be clear.

But now there's a lot of people using quotes when they say Rachel wrote that letter -- as though the physical act of committing words to paper is somehow necessary to receiving credit for composing those words. And there's speculation about whether or not Rachel can read any handwriting at all. (This article is particularly smug and gross.) Rachel is suddenly being used as a posterchild for literacy discussions, as though literacy is a simplistic issue.

Honestly, in a world that is more and more dependent on communication via computer and keyboard, I can't be surprised by someone who has a hard time reading handwriting -- especially when that someone who grew up speaking another language (two other languages). Hell, I can mostly still go shopping in Thai and I've never been able to read a word of it. And if you've ever tried to read an old diary written in someone else's cursive, you've probably struggled to figure out just what that one squiggle is supposed to be, too.

But everyone is rushing to call Rachel's admission sad and embarrassing and even heartbreaking. It's being used to "prove" she's a liar who can't be trusted.

I think it's heartbreaking that people are so eager to enforce racist and classist expectations on this girl. She is not a symbol of the failure of our educational system. She is a young woman in an incredibly difficult situation, being judged and used by the media for their own purposes.

She can't write the "right" way -- and that, in conjunction with her accent and her attitude, have cemented an identity for her, regardless of what she might have chosen for herself.

There is definitely a certain art to penmanship. Handwriting, of any sort, can absolutely be beautiful. And in the mid-1700s in Europe there was a real emphasis on the beauty of handwriting techniques -- there were special schools to teach handwriting. Official documents (like the Declaration of Independence) were all written by hand, and people wanted them to look nice.

Also in the mid-1700s, laws were passed in the US making it actually illegal to teach slaves how to write. This was a deliberate effort to prevent slaves from communicating with each other.

The contrast there is an excellent illustration of the power that the written word can have. That's not even printed materials. That's the power to generate your own text, text that looks the "right" way in order to attract and please readers.

Now, in the U.S., cursive writing is generally used to connote a certain degree of formality and that a real person has done the writing. While real strides have been made in the development of fonts that can recreate handwriting to a certain degree, cursive is a signal of time and attention being put into a piece of writing. (Which is funny because cursive is also supposed to just be faster, which would indicate less time being put into it. We're pretty inconstant with our status symbols, aren't we?)

In middle and high school, I was already a giant nerd. So I taught myself calligraphy. And then turned a tidy little side business, especially around Valentine's day, writing the names of dating couples in fancy script for a buck or two. It was almost always the guys who asked if I'd write something for them. I don't actually know how their gifts were received.

But I know I was operating in the ancient tradition of scriveners, people who used to write letters for other people. That's what Rachel's friend was doing, too.

One of my favorite things is to write and receive letters. A friend of mine (we affectionately refer to each other as Miss Dashwood) sends me beautifully handwritten cards and I make every effort to put on my best penmanship in return. I don't think there's anything wrong with appreciating nice handwriting.

But cursive is being phased out -- I'd say that most handwritten communication is actually being phased out in the US. We depend on digital communications to an incredibly high degree. And yet mainstream culture still expects people to be able to write things by hand, and to do it the "right" way. The classy way.

Will this result in a more widespread return to scrivening? Maybe so. And maybe it also needs to lead to a more in-depth conversation about literacy that doesn't depend on individuals being framed as tragic or in need of educating. Rachel isn't your posterchild. She's got nothing to be embarrassed about.